Thursday, 19 March 2020
An Bille Sláinte (Caomhnú agus Cosaint agus Bearta Éigeandála Eile Ar Mhaithe Le Leas an Phobail), 2020: An Dara Céim - Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I express solidarity with all of our people who are made anxious or fearful by the virus, including the elderly and vulnerable. I express solidarity with our health workers and all those working on the front lines. The Irish people, in general, have risen very well to the challenge posed by Covid-19. We see this in many ways. We see it with our front-line workers in the health service, the tens of thousands of volunteers, the public support for measures such as the closure of schools and pubs and the embracing of social distancing. However, we are playing catch-up in terms of a health service that has been weakened by many years of Government neglect. That is seen in the fact that at the start of the year we have less than half the EU average number of intensive care unit beds. Nothing must stand in the way of our catch-up efforts, including the question of private profit. A two-tier health service is not the best way to meet a public health crisis. Beds in private hospitals will have to be requisitioned, and I say without compensation, and the private hospitals should be taken into public ownership and integrated into a single-tier public health service, providing the groundwork for an Irish NHS.
I was sent to this House as a workers' representative so I will make some points about the issues facing workers in this crisis. As the Dáil meets today, many workers are being forced to choose between feeding their families or paying the rent. This issue was addressed by Ms Patricia King of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, today when she said: "... a household with two adults and one child with a single income of between €45,000 to €50,000, i.e. close to the average earnings for a full-time worker, could see a fall of nearly two-thirds in their net income, while a single worker with no children earning around €25,000 could see a fall of around half." It does not have to be this way. In Norway on Monday the parliament agreed that workers who are temporarily laid off will receive full pay for 20 days. Other countries have guaranteed 90%. I support the call from Mandate and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions for guarantees to be put in place for workers. I have submitted an amendment to instruct the Government to return within a week with a workers' guarantee to guarantee incomes.
Ten years ago workers in Ireland bailed out the banks. Now we need a bailout for workers to protect incomes in this crisis. Some €203 in jobseeker's payment is not sufficient. The sum of €305 for sickness is an improvement, but it does not go far enough. I understand the Minister will announce a temporary ban on evictions and a moratorium on rent increases. He must go further. Workers who lose their jobs must have their rents waived.
They must be able to feed their families and be under no pressure to pay that rent.
The media have told us of the deaths in Italy but very little about the strikes that are sweeping that country as workers demand proper protection in the workplace. A strike leader in Italy said this week that factory workers are not citizens for 24 hours minus eight hours and it is not tolerable that they see their everyday life protected by many rules but when they pass the entrance of the workplace, they are in a no-man's land. This week, many retail workers in this country felt they lived in a no-man's land, and so too did many transport workers, post office workers, cleaners and others. Many of these people have been left to fend for themselves without their employers providing sanitisers, gloves or the necessary protection. It is reckless not to close all non-essential industry and until such time as this happens, workers must be given the tools for proper protection in their jobs.
I must mention the case of third-year student nurses in Cork. They are going to Cork University Hospital and other hospitals to train three days per week next week, and this training will last for six weeks, followed by a fortnight's self-isolation. These students have part-time jobs, many of them in nursing homes, and they will have to forgo these jobs and their incomes for health and safety reasons. This will hit the students who rent particularly hard, as these students receive a travel allowance but not a wage. Not all superheroes wear capes but it seems not all superheroes are getting paid either. These students must be paid.
The legislation provides for the most drastic curtailment of civil liberties in living memory. Many will tolerate this, given that we are experiencing the most dramatic health crisis of recent times. They will do so on the strict condition that these curtailments end with the conclusion of the crisis. For this reason, we have included an amendment that would not allow a Government to renew the legislation; if it is to be renewed, this must be done by a vote of the Dáil. I would go one step further. I agree with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties that Governments in this country have a long tradition of using repressive legislation for purposes other than its intended use. This has been seen many times with the Offences Against the State Act, which has been used not just against terrorism but against trade unionists, student activists and other campaigners. I am particularly concerned about the establishment of a full-time Garda public order unit, with one of its responsibilities, according to the RTÉ website, being to "deal with protests". In France and other countries, Covid-19-related emergency legislation has been already used to repress dissent but that must not happen here. I support many of the provisions in the legislation but for the reasons I outlined, I am opposed to the overall package. I register that point in today's debate and I will be putting down the amendments I mentioned.
I will finish as I started, which is by expressing my admiration for and my faith in the ordinary people of this island to defeat the virus. I stand with them and I have no doubt we will prevail on this matter.